Notes From a Forager: Abalone Diving on the North Coast

Emily Nathan
Batch Made is a new column from forageSF and Batch Made Market founder Iso Rabins, chronicling the ups and downs of the San Francisco foraging lifestyle.

I love abalone diving. Love it. One of my favorite things. I'll avoid the tired "you enter into a different world" cliches, but there's something amazing about being underwater on the Sonoma coast. Paddling out into the rough surf, the sun just starting to peek out from the clouds, the wind whipping the ocean into a froth. You're clutching your float, snorkel awkwardly sticking out of your mouth to battle the spray, legs already tired from the trip, eyes glancing for shark fins...

See also: ForageSF: Expanding the Wild Empire

And then you dive. Down into the dark. You can rarely see the bottom when you dive the Sonoma coast -- 10 feet of visibility is a great day (compared to 50 to 60 in more timid regions). But down you go anyway, past the swaying forests of kelp, holding your nose to equalize, mask tightening against your face from pressure, kicking your fins gently as you descend.

It's peaceful down there. No phones, no email, no meetings, no talking; just the bullwhip kelp swaying with the current, the same current that rocks you back and forth. Rays of sunlight flash from the surface, illuminating the rock fish lazily returning to their burrows. You get to the bottom and just sit, looking up through the now-crisp water to the surface, inspecting the algae-sheathed rocks beneath you ... and there it is. An abalone.

All the time you've wasted staring around like an idiot comes into focus. You're short on air, and know that if you go back to the surface, the surf will push you off the spot and you'll never find it again. You only have one shot. Abalone filter feed, so when undisturbed they have a somewhat gentle grip on the rock, but once they're spooked there's no getting them off. You take your abalone iron and gauge (vital equipment: the former an 8 inch flattened length of steel, the latter to make sure the ab is legal size).

You need to measure with one hand, get ready to pop it off with the other, battling the current to stay in place, all the time making sure not to touch it (lest it clamp down). You approach, measure, slip the iron under its shell, and with an outward motion (abalone are hemophiliacs and if you cut them they'll bleed out, making for a not so great dinner), you pop it off. Straining to grab it as quickly as you can, you start the now seemingly endless trip back to the surface, lungs screaming for oxygen, as you thrust your way though the kelp into the open air.

Doesn't get any better.

Emily Nathan

How to do it:

Pan-Fried Abalone

I'm not going to get all high falutin' with this recipe. This is old school. The way it's been done on beach cookouts for years. I honestly haven't found a more delicious way to eat it:

1 abalone, shelled and cleaned (you can do this with farm-raised, but what's the fun in that? -- and the cleaning is for another post)

6 eggs
2 Cups flour
4 Cups panko bread crumbs
Smoked paprika (ok, maybe this isn't a common beachside ingredient)
Salt and Pepper
4 Cups Rice bran oil

-Slice the abalone into half inch slices, then tenderize with a mallet (I've also seen this done with a baseball bat).
-Heat 1 inch oil until a breadcrumb sizzles, then turn down to maintain temp.
-Make your breading station (paprika and salt seasoned flour, beaten eggs, panko)
-1,2,3, bread your beauties.
-Fry for 1 minute per side.
-Done. Delicious. Good with mayo, or ketchup, or BBQ, or on their own.

Emily Nathan

Follow Iso at @ForageSF.

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Oh, and your writing is full of cliches ( I mean seriously, the bit about emails and meetings?) and sounds like that of a struggling high school student.


I agree with AbaloneTen.  Abalone diving is very dangerous and can have a detrimental effect on the environment if not done properly.  It requires an expert's understanding of the weather, wind, tides, currents and waves, all of which can change rapidly.  

Sadly, many divers have died this year alone.  

It is also important to understand the fishing regulations to be sure not to violate the law, which can result in severe penalties and even jail time.  

No one should go abalone diving without first being trained by an expert.  Also, no one (whether experienced or not) should be diving unless they are a decent swimmer and in decent diving shape.  

Encouraging people to dive when they are not properly trained is putting them (and would be rescuers) at serious risk and is gravely irresponsible. 


You need to become more experienced before taking a bunch of fellow rookies abalone diving under the guise of being an expert (I'm of course referring to your side business at Hunt n Gather SF). 

First, it sounds as if you went diving on a particularly rough day. If the wind is whipping spray in your face as the sun comes up, you should rethink your plan, maybe go get coffee or something instead. Second, use a FLOATLINE to mark abalone! A bunch of newbies are going to stab countless abalone in their efforts to pry them from the rock, and without a floatline to mark their spot, they'll drift off of it between breath-holds, and leave the ab to die as they go off in search of another. If you know what you're doing you can easily pry an ab off after it has clamped down onto the rock. Just measure it, mark it, and come back to it. And finally, an abalone is NOT a filter feeder! Do you tell your "clients" that? They are grazers. Big difference.

Seriously, someone of your experience level is in no way qualified to lead diving tours. I'd hate to hear of someone getting hurt on your watch. 


Did you mention licenses for taking abs?


@madenson Added a link at the bottom of the post, thanks for noticing that.


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